Mar. 2, 2016

On procrastination, good and bad

We tend to think of procrastination as a personal failing, even a moral flaw, a sin. For novelists in particular, marooned at our lonely desks and in our heads, facing enormous tasks and distant deadlines, procrastination is a besetting danger. The web makes the problem infinitely worse, with its little cruelty of turning the writer’s workspace, his computer screen, into an endless cabinet of wonders. Distraction is always just two clicks away.

There is now a small industry churning out advice on how to stay productive in the age of distraction, but it all boils down to this: put away your toys and get to work. In his wonderful The War of Art, Steven Pressfield advises, “Be a pro.” And that, honestly, is the bottom line. Just do it.

Personally, I try to live by that advice. By nature I am lazy and undisciplined, a lifelong procrastinator, so I rely on a set of formal strategies to stay focused. I work in a barren office, on an ancient ThinkPad T23 laptop that has no internet capability. I cripple my smart phone using various apps. (I fiddle constantly with how best to disable my phone during work hours, which, yes, I know.) When all else fails, I leave the damn phone at home.

Fellow weak-willed writers, I can’t say this strongly enough: do not burn energy resisting the temptation of the web. Just turn it off completely. Unplug. Research has shown that people who exhibit strong willpower are not better at resisting temptation; they simply do not expose themselves to temptation. They do not bravely refuse to eat the ice cream in the freezer; they never go down the frozen-food aisle in the supermarket in the first place.

Once I have unplugged from the web, I focus on starting. Not writing a whole novel or even a single scene, not writing for a certain period of time or hitting some daily word-quota. Just starting. As a writer, that is the most essential and difficult thing you will do: start. You must learn to start and start and start. Every morning, despite the awesome scale of the task, despite your own mounting anxiety, you must start. You will fail, of course. All writers fail. Most writers fail most of the time. Doesn’t matter. Get up, dust yourself off, and start again. If you start enough, in some small percentage of those attempts, you will achieve the blessed, transporting, trance-like state of flow that every writer treasures, and the residue of that deeply-focused work will be words on the page.

So that is my anti-procrastination strategy. In two words: unplug and start. I do not claim there is any special wisdom there, nor do these strategies work infallibly for me. I fail all the time, and I scourge myself for it. Probably you do, too.  if you are a writer. It seems to be a universal feeling in this job. But failure is part of writing. Tomorrow you will try again. What choice is there? As Beckett said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

With all that said, I would like to suggest that some procrastination is actually good. Yes, good. Sometimes a writer resists writing not because he is lazy or careless, but because the passage just isn’t ready to be written. Hemingway famously said, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.” Sometimes the way your shit detector goes off is by refusing to allow you to write shit in the first place.

It’s a simple idea but one we are culturally conditioned to resist: sometimes the best thing to do is nothing. Just wait, just stop and think. In his book Antifragile, Hassim Taleb calls this predisposition to act — to do something, anything — the “intervention bias.” He gives the example of a doctor presented with a patient suffering from a sore back. The best advice for this patient may be simply to rest, because most back pain goes away with time. But no prestige accrues to the doctor who does nothing. Instead, it is the aggressive, can-do doctor who performs an expensive surgery, however unwise, however risky to the patient, who winds up “driving the pink Rolls Royce.” Sometimes, he writes, “procrastination is our natural defense” against this cultural bias toward doing, “it is my body rebelling” against it.

Granted in the modern world my tax return is not going to take care of itself — but by … deferring the writing of a passage until my body tells me it is ready, I may be using a very potent, naturalistic filter. I only write if I feel like it and on a subject I feel like writing about — and the reader is no fool. So I use procrastination as a message from my inner self and my deep evolutionary past in my writing to resist the intervention bias. Yet psychologists and behavioral economists (these charlatans) seem to think that it is a disease to be remedied and cured. And pharmaceutical companies might one day come up with a pill for it. Few understand that, instead, one should lead a life in which procrastination is good, as a naturalistic decision-making.

Of course, you can take anything too far, and I do not mean to make an elaborate excuse for dawdling. But the fact is we procrastinate for a reason. Procrastination is not a disease, it is a symptom, a natural, instinctive response to a difficult, anxiety-provoking situation. The task for a writer is to isolate why you are procrastinating. What are you anxious about? What aspect of today’s writing assignment is freezing you up? Is it mere laziness? Is it the difficulty of the task ahead? If so, then too bad — stop whining and get to work. You want an easy job? Don’t be a writer. But consider for just a moment that maybe, just maybe, the reason you can’t seem to write is that your shit-detector is buzzing like crazy. Sometimes procrastination is not a matter of bad habits but of good taste.

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